Berlin Officials Frustrated With Mayor’s Budget Approach; Tyndall Defends Flat Tax Rate Proposal Amid Transparency Concerns

Berlin Officials Frustrated With Mayor’s Budget Approach; Tyndall Defends Flat Tax Rate Proposal Amid Transparency Concerns
Members of the Berlin Town Council are pictured during last week's budget discussion. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

BERLIN – Several of the town’s council members voiced frustration this week with the lack of information being shared by Mayor Zack Tyndall.

In the wake of a divisive tax rate discussion last week, council members remain frustrated with the current budget process. While the timing is one issue, some say another is the fact that Tyndall is slow to share information.

“He won’t share anything he’s received with the council,” Councilman Troy Purnell said. “He’s got the information and will disseminate what we can and cannot see.”

Tyndall, meanwhile, maintains that he’s providing more information than the last mayor.

“This council is getting information way earlier than I ever did [as a council person],” he said.

Last Monday, the council voted 4-1, with Purnell opposed, to approve a tax rate of $.815 per $100 of assessed valuation. The decision came after hours of discussion and exceeded the current rate of $.80, which the mayor recommended retaining.

Tyndall said this week that while he signed the ordinance setting the rate out of respect for the council, he was not happy with increasing taxes.

“I felt like it was a reverse bidding war,” he said of the meeting, which included motions for tax rates ranging from $.815 to $.86.

He said he remains confident that a tax rate of $.80 would have served the town well. He doesn’t want to simply increase taxes because the cost of business is going up.

“We need to look at costs, look at what’s necessary,” he said. “We can’t continue to do business as usual.”

Councilman Jay Knerr acknowledges that taxes were voters’ primary concern as he campaigned last fall.

“That being said, when we got into the budget it was clear it was out of sync,” he said. “You couldn’t possibly balance the budget on 80 cents.”

His peers agreed. Purnell pointed out the town does not have the money it needs to address roadwork or capital projects. While he favored at least a six-cent increase, others said $.815 was at least a step in the right direction.

“The increase, in my view, was a compromise and a step to get the town moving forward,” Councilman Jack Orris said. “We need to do something to start preparing and saving for the future. That being said, during the upcoming budget sessions, I plan to offer suggestions to use the increased revenue for capital projects and cushion our new reserve policy.”

Knerr maintains that the cuts Tyndall proposed to get to the $.80 rate — things like pay increases, cell phone allowances and training expenses — should not have been made. He believes the town’s employees are critical to its success.

“If their morale is busted, they may not stay,” he said.

Purnell also didn’t agree with those reductions.

“That’s not how I treat my staff,” he said.

Councilwoman Shaneka Nichols echoed their concerns.

“Those guys are the backbone of this town,” she said. “I understand the citizens are the most important members of the community but at the same time I also feel that the people that run this town, that do the grunt work day in and day out to keep this town in the standard that we have it, deserve to be compensated adequately.”

The council’s concerns with Tyndall’s proposed budget were exacerbated by the fact that a policy approved in 2019 required adoption of the tax rate at the second meeting in March. Budget work sessions, however, don’t begin until April. Following last week’s lengthy discussion, several council members are advocating for a change once this year’s budget is complete.

“The process the way it is currently doesn’t offer any information to the public in regards to the budget,” Orris said. “If we set the rate after all the meetings, public work sessions and hearings, the public can see throughout the whole process what we’re all paying for. After this budget season, I’m looking forward to working with the mayor, council and staff to develop a more transparent and informative budget timeline.”

Knerr said the council would be able to make a better decision regarding the tax rate if it had budget information.

“This whole process has been quite backward,” he said. “I don’t know how you work with that.”

Having received Tyndall’s proposed general fund budget three days before the decision on the tax rate, council members are now anxious to get the utility funds’ proposed budgets.

“Unfortunately, the mayor has seen them but has not released them,” Knerr said. “He’s withholding information. You need to work with your council. That’s not happening, which is unfortunate.”

Nichols said that as a new council member she hadn’t been sure what to expect during the budget process.

“I thought that during the budget process there would’ve been far more communication than we’re having right now,” she said. “I’m hoping that it gets better, that these are just growing pains for all parties involved and, being very optimistic here, I know that within these next three to four years that we are going to learn to work together more cohesively as a governing body.”

Purnell says the process shouldn’t be so opaque. He doesn’t recall it being this difficult to get information when Gee Williams was mayor.

“It’s been frustrating so far,” he said.

Tyndall, however, insisted he was providing more information than the prior administration. He said the reason the council hadn’t received the utility budgets yet was because he was in the process of meeting with directors of those departments to review the budgets.

“I just want to make sure when I share them they’re in a format that’s understandable,” he said. “I still don’t have a complete picture of any of the utility funds.”

Tyndall also noted that the council had been provided the budget schedule in January. According to the schedule, the tax rate had to be set March 22, budget work sessions are scheduled for April 12 and April 26 and final budget adoption is planned for May 24.

“They’ve had the dates since January,” he said. “It was shocking to hear they did not feel they were involved.”

He doesn’t believe the budget process is being handled any differently than it was in years past.

“I’ve asked, and I continue to ask, the council if something can be done better let me know so I can fix it,” he said.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.